A trolley with no riders

by Jordan Green

I’m a big fan of public transit. It’s the bloodstream that sustains the pumping heart of a real city. Because a city is a place where people come together, where different activities coexist in a sometimes noisy symphony of mutual accommodation. Commerce, creativity and innovation take place when people can work, recreate and live in close proximity. For that to be possible, you have to offer transportation alternatives that allow people to leave their cars at home, or at least parked someplace out of the way.

That’s why it fills me with a kind of burning indignation every time I see the downtown Winston-Salem rubber-tire trolley — a classic-looking vehicle with a vaulted blue roof and side paneling, and arched windows set off with gold paint, like a Disney replica that rolled off a quaint San Francisco theme park —trundle around downtown without a single passenger. That’s every single time. And I make a point of looking.

For the uninitiated, it’s not really clear where the trolley stops and where it’s going. I usually watch the driver, a woman equipped with a cap, sunglasses and leather gloves who maintains a steady forward gaze, maneuver the trolley through the streets as if operating a bus without customers is the most natural thing in the world. Which I guess it is, if that’s what you get paid to do.

Armed with a little advance information on how the system work, I made a stop at the bank in Greensboro to withdraw cash and get a stack of ones before heading to Winston-Salem. I parked at the south end of the federal building and walked up Main Street to a stop designated by a small metal sign. It was noon, and I learned that during the period around lunchtime the trolley runs a smaller loop that bypasses this stop. I walked up to Wells Fargo Linden Center. The driver of the empty bus offered a courteous greeting, but the novelty of the experience made it slightly awkward.

I had hoped that my expectations would be proven wrong, but alas, the driver and I spent the 15 minutes making the full loop during the prime lunch hour of noon to 1 p.m. without encountering another soul.

The driver told me that peak ridership times vary, but that people take the trolley when they want to dine out for both lunch and dinner. She said that sometimes children from the downtown daycares ride. I wondered if I somehow missed the other riders because I was on the trolley in the heart of the lunch hour rather than at the beginning or the end when people might be venturing out or returning to their desks. But I didn’t have the heart to put such a fine point on the question. Later I asked Art Barnes, general manager of the Winston-Salem Transit Authority for the peak times and he replied with something less than absolute certitude: “Probably lunchtime.”

Barnes told me that 6,080 people ride the trolley annually, which translates to about 17 passengers a day. Assuming that WSTA collects a dollar for each of those rides, that’s a revenue stream of $6,080 — an insignificant amount compared to the $150,281 annual cost of salaries, maintenance and fuel to operate the trolley. Wells Fargo covers 56 percent of the cost, which explains why the main stops are the bank’s Linden Center and West End Center, along with its iconic Winston-Salem headquarters at 101 N. Main St., which is served by the longer route that operates in the mornings and afternoons.

Councilman Dan Besse, the Southwest Ward representative and the most vocal advocate for public transit on the Winston-Salem City Council told me that the rubber-tire trolley has suffered from mismanagement and lack of adequate marketing.

“Having it run with low ridership leaves people with the misimpression that circulators can’t be effective,” he said. “Circulators can be extremely effective, but this one has not been.”

I asked Besse where Winston-Salem’s downtown circulator missed the mark.

“There’s a list,” he said. “It’s not advertised well. Its stops are unclear. Its timing is unknown. Its potential rider base doesn’t know where it’s going to go and when it’s going to get there. They’re not going to stand out on the street corner to flag down eventually a passing bus.”

Besse has long-advocated a fixed-rail streetcar — an actual trolley to link Winston-Salem State University and Baptist Hospital along the northern rim of downtown — but the council got cold feet last year on a major bond package that included the project. The location and time of the stops are more defined with a fixed-rail system, Besse argues, providing riders with consistency and reliability.

“It will attract development to its route because the builders and developers aren’t worried that the route is going to get picked up and moved,” he said. “They can be confident that if they put a new condominium or apartment complex or office building that the route is going to be there because we’ve made an investment.”

In Besse’s view, the downtown circulator currently in place isn’t bold enough to make a real difference.

“The central difficulty with the rubbertire trolley is that it is a half measure that provides inadequate service on the cheap and doesn’t accomplish its goals,” he said.

WSTA is conducting a comprehensive analysis of all its routes, and Besse said council expects to receive its report in the fall. Josh Dunn, a spokesman for Wells Fargo in Charlotte, said the bank views the trolley service as an efficient way to transport “team members” between employment centers and as a way to keep cars off the street. If the city decided to pull out, Dunn said, “We would certainly have to consider our options at that point.”

In the meantime, this from Dan Besse, the city’s most ardent public transit champion: “It needs to be overhauled and significantly upgraded. Or scrapped.”